Making a Moment

As I dive deeper into the lindy hop and swing dance community, I can’t help but get a little meta about it, especially after witnessing the after-party from CBUS6 yesterday. You see, up until this past weekend, I’ve been the sort of community who attends the local events only; weekly and monthly dances.

This past weekend was CBUS6, i.e. the sixth lindy exchange based here in Columbus. It was a fantastic event, made awesome because the planning committee worked hard to make sure there was an equal number of followers and leaders. When the last official dance was over, I was invited to join the remaining locals at a committee member’s house to help eat the leftover food and hang out.

There were hardwood floors perfect for dancing in socks, so even though we had danced all weekend, we got to be really silly and dance like 1980s Cosby, do the mashed potato and the twist, and even the Jump On It dance (via The Fresh Prince of Bel Air).

I got to watch people whom I consider expert dancers talk about technique, which was certainly eye-opening because I don’t know the names to any of the moves that I do on the dance floor when I swing and lindy hop. I’m lucky in that I can pick up moves after a couple of trial runs, so I’ve never really had to take official lessons. Which is about the time the user researcher in me blinked and realized what was going on: I’ve been performing ethnographic research on this community since I joined in late August.

The swing dance community in Columbus, OH is amazing, hands down. The people are welcoming, fantastic dancers who don’t care about your skill level as long as you love to dance as much as they do. I knew there was much going on behind the scenes that I hadn’t access to, being a new member, so man, was it awesome to see these guys at work!

By the luck of simply being present, I got to watch as a new competition couple asked the advice of two veterans about their choice of song, and what they could do with it. Which brings me to the title of this post, “Making a Moment.”

As the five of us sat in a parked car on the side of a residential road listening to the chosen song of the new competition couple, one of the veteran dancers said, “This is a great song. You have the opportunity to have a lot of nice moments.”

I was struck by her choice of words. Moments? I had heard that word used before, in a very similar fashion. When I took ceramics, I made a piece called The Frog Prince. A ceramic masters student at the time walked past me while I was building the piece, complimenting me on the “great moments” I had captured.

 

I love this piece because it has humor. The prince puckers his lips, looking confident and hopeful. The girl, with her lip curled in disgust, leans as far back as gravity will allow before actually falling over. She is so desperate to reject his advances that her hair whips with the force of her movement.

I feel as though in the arts and artistic endeavors such as dance, we aim for making “moments.” The thing is, I’m still not entirely sure how to describe a “moment” to someone outside of the community, be it the ceramic, painting, drawing, or dancing community. Is it something perfectly captured in a sliver of time that triggers something in our minds and emotions? Is it something ephemeral, or is it static? I’m not entirely sure. Having heard this word used in two different, yet possibly related fields, it makes me wonder…

Could I make a “moment” in a website or physical design, i.e. something meant to be used, rather than observed? The moments mentioned earlier put the audience in a passive role: you study the ceramic piece; you watch (and cheer) the competing dance couple.

Perhaps making a moment in interaction design is too much like trying to make an experience, which just rubs me the wrong way. I can’t make an experience, because only the person having the experience knows if they are having an experience, or if they are simply experiencing something in a line of all the other somethings in their day. I can provide an environment which has a collection of variables which may very well lead to an intellectual/emotional/physical experience. But I can’t create the experience.

But it seems I can create a moment, at least with clay. So what is it I would have to do in order to capture a moment using technology as my medium?

Think, think, think…

Putting Yourself Out There

My sister convinced me to do it. Speed dating. It was over a series of texts one evening when I was, I will admit, feeling rather sorry for myself. We signed up a couple of weeks in advance, which gave me plenty of time to bounce between regret, amusement, horror, and curiosity.

Finally, I decided the only way I could reconcile my mind to the idea of speed dating, I would write a report about my experience. This is that report, a week or so after the event.

Social Stigma

There is a stigma against speed dating, much as there is against online dating. The latter’s stigma is losing steam simply because so many people spend a lot of time online in the first place; it’s how they interact with friends and family around the world. It is making more sense to people that they can find a significant other through this method.

Speed dating, I feel, continues to carry a rather heavy stigma because people are portrayed as desperate; the cattle-like shuffling as people switch from table to table, wondering if the next person will be interesting enough to carry a six minute conversation.

Why do it?

Honestly, why not? I am a young professional who keeps herself extremely busy. I’m a workaholic in most facets of my life and very accomplished because of it. The odds of me meeting someone while I’m doing one of my many activities, and them having the guts to speak to me, grows smaller all the time.

You have no idea how often people have told me, “You’re kind of intimidating.” I’ve been hearing this since the 10th grade. Rather annoying, that. So speed dating, I figured, is one way to level the playing field.

The Experience

My sister and I entered the restaurant and were led to a back area that had tables and booths lined up. We were given name tags with a number on it which designated where we should sit, and sheets of paper with numbered rows so we could take notes about the men we spoke to.

The coordinator instructed us to have fun, be open, and use the sheets of paper to remember who we spoke to. I sat down and smiled at my first interviewee.

Which really, when you think about it, that’s all speed dating is: speed interviewing. Within a minute of sitting there asking questions and answering them, I realized that I felt comfortable because this is what I do for a living. As a usability analyst, it is my job to establish a connection with my test participant as quickly as possible so that they feel comfortable critiquing the design I put before them. I’m not testing them, I’m testing the design.

Well, with speed dating, you are testing them, but in a subtle way. How are you doing today? Is this your first time doing this sort of thing? What do you like to do? What is your favorite color? What are your hobbies? What is your job? Your education?

These are factors that I ended up using to determine if this person was…

  1. Interesting
  2. Able to answer questions
  3. Socially awkward (allowing for the environment, of course)
  4. Educated
  5. Someone I would want to continue speaking with later.

I had worked a ten hour day interviewing five participants during 1.5hr sessions. I went straight from work to the event with no time for food. As such, I was still in interview mode. Which paid off quite nicely in that I wasn’t nervous at all. I was awkward, but no more than normal. I admitted this was my first time attending an event like this, and people gave me pointers.

Honestly, it was no more than a two hour extension of my work day. But I wasn’t getting paid for it. Unless you count the idea that I might have met The One that night. Not likely, but a possibility anyway.

At the end of six minutes, the coordinator rang a bell. The gentlemen picked up their coats, drinks, and clipboards and shuffled to the next table. Us women scribbled notes on our sheets of paper, marking down whether we found anyone interesting. There were nine couples there, and by Person 7, I was flagging hardcore. I pushed through, forcing myself to stay smiley and enthusiastic.

By the end, I circled two men who were interesting enough to continue the conversation. I figured I might as well… I had paid to sit there talking to people when, a year ago, I did that sort of thing for free because I was in school and exposed to new people every day. The grad student in me resented the expense even though I could afford it.

Conclusions

Speed dating is not as bad as people make it out to be. I may be thinking this because it’s my job to interview people and make connections. Or because one of my strengths is conversation. Or because I knew I’d get a story out of it, and I’m always looking for new fiction ideas.

Or maybe because my heart wasn’t really in it, but my curious nature couldn’t help but try it out. I didn’t put pressure on myself because I didn’t believe I would meet anyone super interesting. Do you know how difficult it is to be interesting in under six minutes?

And that, I believe, is why people end up distrusting speed dating… six minutes is enough time to determine if you don’t want to continue talking with someone. It’s not necessarily enough time to determine if you do. At best, after six minutes, if you’ve decided this person you’re speaking with isn’t a complete mismatch, bore, etc, all you know is just that. Nothing else.

If you’re interested in meeting people or practicing your conversation skills, try speed dating. At $30 a pop, it doesn’t hurt. But if you go in there expecting to find The One, you are putting unnecessary pressure on yourself that will ruin the experience.

In the end, the event was worth it because I was reminded that I am good at making people feel comfortable enough that they can open up to me. That I can hold a conversation with anyone. The trick, now, is to find someone I actually want to have a conversation with.

How I Found Steampunk

I don’t remember when I first heard about steampunk. I feel like it was a couple of years ago, when I was heavily embroiled in historical research for my novel. I was looking for exemplars for book covers, and potential artists to design mine. I stumbled upon a Deviant Art profile, I remember that much for sure. I quite literally geeked out about the clothing the actors wore in the photos, and the wonderful framing. I thought they were reenactors, a là The American Civil War or something similar. But the clothing was incorrect for my assumed time period to explain the photos, so I began to read the descriptions. “Steampunks” it declared. I was hooked.

But even though I was hooked, I didn’t really pursue it. It wasn’t my focus at the time. I was looking for people to provide inspiration for a book cover, nothing more. So I put it aside and continued on my merry way.

The Three Sisters, it seems, had other plans for me.

Weren’t you going to do something with nurses?

This past summer, I began some preliminary research for my capstone. I wanted to do something with nurses and technology… something that bridged the gap so that nurses could spend more time with the patient, and less time fiddling with a beeping computer. The topic was interesting. It was important. It didn’t spark my passion. So I thought perhaps it was about the nurses’ relationship with their technology. Maybe I could help them like the technology they’re forced to use by their administration. But how to do that?

Appropriation. I thought if I could help the nurses appropriate their technology, then maybe that would ease the pain of learning a new system. Reading about appropriation was far more interesting than about nurses, and there were more papers available to read, anyway. I began to wonder what sort of exemplars I could grab to showcase unique appropriations.

From mere exemplars to central focus

It was about this time that Dane wrote a post that sparked my interest. The comments to that post consisted of us joking that we would take over the world using a fleet of zeppelins, with our brass goggles gleaming in the sunlight and our scarves flowing “majestically,” I think was the word I used, as we floated toward triumph. This was the first time I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun if I dressed up as steampunk for Halloween?”

With images of brass and wood machinery, steam and goggles, lace and grommets, all swirling in my head, somehow, in the raging mind storm, the word “appropriation!” burst through. I distinctly remember saying to my laptop, “Oh. Steampunk! Duh.”

Getting serious about having fun

Thus began my hunt. I went to Wikipedia to find a general definition. I searched the web for images of technology and clothing. I found blogs to follow and an independent magazine to buy. I embraced the visual aesthetic and used it to inspire my works for ceramics. In class, people joked about my wearing steampunk for my capstone presentation, and I joked along with them.

But it isn’t a joke anymore. Somewhere along the way, I realized I could pull it off. Not only can I probably pull off a steampunk costume, but I already have most of the components hanging innocently in my closet. I have enough exemplars from searching Flickr groups to know the general look. I have the artistic skills to potentially make a pair of cheap safety goggles look steampunkish. I even have a preliminary sketch (above). I’m really excited. I love art projects, they make me feel creative, and engaged with my materials.

Getting systematic

When I mentioned to Shaowen that I’m planning on going steampunk for Halloween, thinking it would be another way to experience steampunk, she told me that was a valid form of research. This was great, because I thought it was just something fun. Sweet! She mentioned autoethnography, and that it’s like ethnography, but using the self as a participant as a part of the study. Where ethnography tries to bring the viewpoint of the “native” into focus, and represent that experience faithfully, autoethnography assumes that the observer cannot be impartial, and that these partial observations are as valid as the impartial ethnographer’s observations.

Shaowen wants me to be very systematic in how I go about reflecting as an autoethnographer. To be honest, though, I felt uncomfortable jumping in headfirst like that. She wanted me to say what sort of information I’m going to gather, when, and why; what do I hope to learn? I felt like I couldn’t do that without having  a better understanding of autoethnography… so tonight I read two papers* that inspired me so much, that I sketched a page of notes, began to get a feel for the sort of information I want to gather/look for, and began writing this post.

Why do you always write at night?

That is such a good question. It’s plagued me since I was young. Most of my best ideas, for fiction anyway, come at 2 AM. I am both excited for and dreading the moment when that begins for capstone, because I will never get a solid night’s sleep again, and I am already exhausted. I should be asleep… I was in bed two hours ago! Yet here I am at midnight, feverishly writing while my bloodshot eyes manage to stay open.

Anyway, as I continue my (perhaps) more formal research, my next step for the autoethnography is to list out a couple different categories of data I want to collect, why I want to collect them, and what information I hope to learn from them. I’ll begin to formally document my iterations on my Halloween costume, and continue blogging. I’m still looking for my definition of appropriation, with the added question of why is this so important to me.

So much to do, so little time, way too much fun.

* Duncan’s Autoethnography: Critical Appreciation of an Emerging Art, and Spry’s Performing Ethnography: An Embodied Methodological Praxis